No, Microsoft and Skype are not playing Big Brother

No, Microsoft and Skype are not playing Big Brother

Summary: If all you have is tinfoil, everything looks like a conspiracy. But it's hard to work up even a mild case of paranoia about your personal communications if you actually read Skype's Privacy Policy from start to finish.


My colleague Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols wants you to be afraid of Skype. Very afraid.

“Big Brother Microsoft,” he says, “listens in to your Skype IMs.”

Oh my goodness, this is simply awful. Or at least one would think so, unless you read the parts of the Skype Privacy Policy that Mr. Vaughan-Nichols conveniently omitted from his inflammatory report.

I’ve read that document carefully. You can too. When you do, you'll see that there's not much to fear.

The ginned-up controversy involves two sections. First is the preamble to section 1:

Skype may gather and use information about you, including (but not limited to) information in the following categories…

That’s followed by a long list of data types that you must, by definition, share with a communication service of which you are a member. Things like your name and e-mail address, which you enter into your profile. Your list of contacts. The payment information you’ve stored with Skype (your credit card number, for example) so that you can make international calls at a few cents per minute.

And then there’s the item in section (n), which is conveniently bold-faced in Steven’s post so that you know exactly what he wants you to be scared about:

(n) Content of instant messaging communications (please see section 12)

Wait, what? Someone at Microsoft is reading your instant messages in Skype?

Well, no.

Let’s ignore the fact that the only reason most ordinary people uses Skype IMs is to coordinate the audio and video portion of the call with the person on the other end. My Skype IM history mostly contains messages like “Hey, plug in your webcam so we can talk, OK?”

But it’s a reasonable question to ask. Why on earth would Skype want to “gather and use … the content of instant messaging communications” by its subscribers?

That question is answered, directly, in Section 2, which immediately follows the list in section 1. It is headlined, in bold: HOW DOES SKYPE USE THIS INFORMATION AND FOR WHAT PURPOSE?

Our primary purpose in collecting information is to provide you with a safe, smooth, efficient, and customized experience. Skype collects and uses, or has third party service providers acting on Skype’s behalf collecting and using, personal data relating to you, as permitted or necessary to…

That in turn is followed by a list of 14 reasons, none of which are controversial. In fact, the very first item on the list answers the question thoroughly. Skype gathers and uses that information to “provide internet communication, video sharing and other products in particular to convey the communications and videos you and others make by means of the Skype software and/or the Skype products.”

Right. When you type words into a communication service, those words have to be "gathered and used" as they are passed from node to node along the network of computers that make up Skype’s network. It’s the same reason that you have to give an online storage provider the right to copy and use files you store in the cloud—because they need that right in order to provide you with the service you signed up for.

In Steven’s post, he highlights a small part of section 12:

Skype currently keeps your instant messages “for a maximum of 30 days unless otherwise permitted or required by law. Voicemail messages are currently stored for a maximum of 60 days unless otherwise permitted or required by law.”

So let’s be logical here. Why on earth would a service want to retain this data for 30 days?

Perhaps it would make more sense if we read the section in its entirety instead of selectively editing it. Maybe that will answer the question:

Retention of Instant Messages (Skype internet communications software application only)

Your instant messaging (IM) communications-content may be stored by Skype (a) to convey and synchronise your messages and (b) to enable you to retrieve the messages and history where possible. IM messages are currently stored for a maximum of 30 days unless otherwise permitted or required by law. Voicemail messages are currently stored for a maximum of 60 days unless otherwise permitted or required by law. Skype will at all times take appropriate technical and security measures to protect your information. By using this product, you consent to the storage of your IM communications as described above. [emphasis added]

Oh. So the service needs to store my messages in order to synchronize my messages and allow me to retrieve them on different devices. So if I have a conversation with you on my desktop PC and then go on the road with my notebook or iPad or mobile phone, I can sign in to my Skype account and we can pick up where we left off? Even if that last conversation was two or three weeks ago?

That doesn’t seem so nefarious.

Skype also discloses that it will store voicemail messages. Well, of course they will. That’s how voicemail works.

This whole controversy started last week when a writer at Slate tried to spin gold out of the stuff you find on the floor of a barn. No, not straw. The other stuff:

[W]hen I repeatedly questioned the company on Wednesday whether it could currently facilitate wiretap requests, a clear answer was not forthcoming. Citing “company policy,” Skype PR man Chaim Haas wouldn’t confirm or deny…

Hello? Spokespersons for big companies aren't normally allowed to comment on sensitive legal issues. If I had a nickel for every time someone at Microsoft or Apple or Google or Facebook gave me a boilerplate official response and declined further comment, we could have one very lavish party.

Look, if you are concerned about the privacy or security of any kind of communications over the Internet, you should think twice about using a widely available commercial service designed for consumers. That’s true of email, any voice-over-IP service, and any form of instant messaging. (Microsoft does offer a business-class secure messaging service called Lync.)

If you are worried that any of those communications might be of interest to a law enforcement agency, then you should invest in a secure, encrypted channel. You should not use Skype or Facebook chat or Google Voice. That's Privacy 101.

On the other hand, if you want to chat with your grandkids who live across the country, or you want to catch up with an old friend who moved to Thailand, or you want to have a face-to-face chat with your spouse from your hotel room after a long day of business travel, you should feel completely comfortable using Skype. You certainly shouldn't be afraid.

Meanwhile, in the interest of telling the rest of the story, I’ve asked Facebook, Google, and Microsoft for an update on their specific privacy policies for their chat services and will do a follow-up post after I hear back.

Topics: Privacy, Cloud, Security, Software

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  • Classic anti-Microsoft propaganda

    Is it still considered trendy to bash Microsoft? Some people seem to think so.
    Tim Acheson
    • Yes.

      And Mr. Vaghn-Nichols does it quite often.
      The one and only, Cylon Centurion
      • I do too

        It makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside.

        • Umm...

          Are you sure you didn't pee your pants? I'm just concerned that in your delusional anti-Microsoft state that maybe you were distracted. :)
          • Wanna find out?

            "Are you sure you didn't pee your pants?"

            Just bend down an open your mouth.

        • Feel warm and fuzzy...

          Feel warm and fuzzy, but look dumb and childish. At least you feel good, and that's all that matters, I suppose.
          • Damm right that's all that matters

            As long as it's at your expense, I'm happy.
        • Hmmmmm........

          You're one of the dumbest twats on the internet. So we expect it from worthless shills like you. You're so stupid, that your mother should be arrested for squirting you out and polluting the internet and the world with your stupidity.
          • That comes from being around a shithead like you

            You sound constipated. Maybe you should add more fiber to your diet. That way you won't sound like you're so full of shit all the time.

            Hmmm? ;)
  • trash SJVN articles...

    Good to see that SJVN is confronted, this guy nothing but a anti-MS clown.
    • Vaughan-Nichols is a shameless liar

      At first I thought he was just incompetent, but if his repeated false statements were errors, he'd apologise when confronted with facts showing them to be false. Instead, he just goes quiet.

      It's irresponsible for sites like ZDnet to continue publishing things by dishonest hacks like Vaughan-Nichols, but of course he does generate hits, and that brings advertising revenue.
      • Can I remind everyone

        That SJVN makes money out of your outrage if you post on his blog - I believe ZDNet still pays by number of posts.

        Count to 10 and move on and SJVN will be left with his small choir of ABMers and Linux obsessives.

        A strange game. The only way to win is not to play.
        • Yet you continue to play

          “A strange game. The only way to win is not to play.”
          • What's wrong with playing?

            If you have no problem with what he writes, who cares.
        • Well, Ed Bott is a Microsoft apologist...

          Not that there is anything wrong with that. I put on my blue glasses when I read an Ed article, and yellow glasses when I read an SJVN article. And I've got my other colored glasses for other authors.
          I'm amazed at the vitriol of the responses in these blogs. The authors write according to their own self interests. Just take them as entertainment. Put on your rose colored glasses!
          I am Gorby
          • Nothing wrong with bias

            The problem with SJVN isn't his biases, it's that he's dishonest. The vast majority of open source advocates (including all the ones I personally know) are honest, and I'm sure ZDNet could find someone honest to write about open source.

            I work as a scientific researcher, and discovering the truth is what science is all about. Nothing is more destructive to the progress of science than dishonesty, so I have a visceral dislike of people who are dishonest. Bias is fine. (Everyone's biased.)
  • No, Microsoft and Skype are not playing Big Brother

    Way to go, Ed! You just b-slapped SJVN in so many ways that he's got to be hurting. I'm amazed that ZDNet still keeps him on the payroll considering the articles he writes which don't have any truth to them. More people need to share this blog post because you bring up the real truth, and feel free to send it to the Slate writer as well.
    Loverock Davidson-
  • It was very nice of you to refer to him as your colleague

    They should make a new blogging section on ZDNet just for him called "Conspiracy Theories, Lies and Hate on Products I know nothing about".
    • @bobiroc

      LOL. That is one solid recommendation to Larry. Larry are you reading this?
      Ram U
  • I'm sure you're ashamed to have him as a zdnet colleague

    that guy called SJVN. I stopped reading his articles/blogs a long time ago..